Ico, and Design by Subtraction | Game Maker’s Toolkit

Hi, this is Mark Brown with Game Maker’s Toolkit,
a series on video game design. There are many games that designers describe
as inspirational. But few modern games can claim to be quite
as influential as the quietly beautiful, cult classic, Ico. In interviews, game makers have said that
Ico was instrumental in the development of Papo & Yo, Brothers, Journey, and the upcoming
Rime. But also less obvious titles, like The Last
of Us, Prince of Persia, and even Halo 4. Dark Souls creator Hidetaka Miyazaki said
“that game awoke me to the possibilities of the medium”. So what is it about this unassuming game that
makes it so influential among our favourite game designers? Why does it resonate so loudly, when the game
itself is so quiet and restrained? You see, the game is about a boy and a girl. You control the boy, Ico, and help the girl,
Yorda, escape a castle. Along the way you’ll solve some puzzles, and
fight shadowy monsters by whacking them with a stick or a sword. And that is… about it. Even playing it today it feels distinctly
minimalist. But this sort of bare bones design was practically
unheard of back on the PlayStation 2. There was no Limbo or Proteus back then. But this jarring lack of features and mechanics
was, of course, deliberate, as Ico designer Fumito Ueda was using a game creation philosophy
that he would later call “design by subtraction”. Early on in development, when the game was
being made for PlayStation 1, Ico had a complex combat system, a wide array of characters,
and lots of areas like a village, a dense forest, and a deserted island. All of that was removed. Not for financial or technical reasons, but
in an effort to find the core of the game and then ruthlessly prune everything that
didn’t fully support it. The core of Ico, of course, is the bond between
Ico and Yorda. Themes of companionship, and looking out for
someone in need. It’s a game where you have to hold a button
down, to emphasise the feeling of holding someone’s hand. So everything that is left in the game is
there to support that core theme. Take the puzzles: practically every puzzle
in the game is only half completed when you reach somewhere new yourself. The other half is about making a safe path
for Yorda to follow. And in the combat, Ico can’t die. His only fail state – other than toppling
off the side of a cliff – is to let Yorda get taken away by these shadowy enemies. Your safety isn’t important, but Yorda’s is. Similarly, because this story isn’t Ico’s,
he doesn’t level up, or have fancy combos, parries, or finishing moves during the fights. He just swings his stick about in vein hopes
of defending his charge. Yorda is needed to open doors to new areas which we’ve seen in many games with tagalong characters. But she’s also needed to save the game, as
the two characters must flop back on these stone benches to store your progress. So it sure would suck, and make you feel vulnerable
and alone, if Yorda wasn’t there for a large stretch of the game, right? Also, Ueda wanted to focus on the aspects
of the game that sold the reality of this connection and the world these characters
inhabit. So Team Ico focused its time on building an
intricately designed castle that was interconnected and felt like a real space. And it focused on believable and expressive
animation – inspired by Ueda’s favourite Amiga games like Another World, Flashback, and the
original Prince of Persia. (Yes. Prince of Persia inspired Ico. And Ico
inspired Prince of Persia. Video games are weird). Plus, the team simply removed elements that
broke the immersive feel, and might have reminded you that Yorda was simply a video game character. There’s no health bar, no map screen or inventory
screen, no static characters with dialogue that loops unrealistically, and often no background
music. All told, you’re left with a rare game that
is distinctly about something. And with nothing extraneous to dilute that
message. I think that’s why it resonates. This is not to suggest that all games become
as minimalist and streamlined as this one, of course. The combat in Ico, in my opinion, is a little
too simple and gets very repetitive. Even Ueda himself admits that he might have
gone a little too far in design by subtraction, and his follow up, Shadow of the Colossus,
has more elements and mechanics, as well as health bars and music. But it’s also an action game without traditional
enemies because what use are they, when the core of the game is better supported in the
fights with these titanic bosses. It’s more to say that in a time of kitchen
sink design, where every game seemingly needs to have two dozen guns, a crafting system,
micromanagement, and hundreds of side missions, it’s worth thinking more about removing the
stuff that takes away from the idea or mechanic at the heart of the game. Does Assassin’s Creed really need tower defence
sections? Did Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater really benefit
from the addition of skitchin’? An example of this in practice, is Fez. Creator Phil Fish told Gamasutra that his
quirky indie game once had hearts and Zelda-like heart containers, and puzzles about redistributing
weight – but he decided to remove them, and other ideas, because they didn’t prop up the
central mechanic of rotating the world, and the central theme of seeing things from a
different perspective. Ueda’s approach to design, says Fish, “gave
me the strength to butcher my own game, and every time I did the game got better for it,
tighter, more streamlined”. To other developers Fish says “take a hard,
critical look at your game and ask yourself what is necessary, what really has anything
to do with what you’re trying to accomplish”. Because it’s easy to add features that you
think are cool, or will increase the game’s length, or give you another bullet point on
your Steam description. But is it just diluting the core message of
your game, and hurting your ability to have your game be about something. To say something. To resonate. Thanks for watching! If you enjoyed the episode, please give the
video a like on YouTube, leave a comment, or consider pitching in via Patreon. Your support truly makes this show possible.


  • Sezyu

    don't you dare talk about skitching like that mark

  • Karmosin

    I don't think Yorda holds up nowadays. Not dismissing how influental this game is, and at the time it was probably something incredibly new and inventive, but Yorda feels like an object you have to drag around with you to open doors more than a human being wich you bond with over the progression of the game.

  • Space God

    Amazing work

  • Fif Gallag

    A lesson that another game for the PS2, Bully, really could have used. "Do we really need a minigame where you throw newspapers at people's mailboxes?"

  • Carl Brutananadalewski

    We used the same design ideas in my graphic design classes. My photography teacher always said "if it isn't adding, then it's taking away". That has always stuck with me. As always, great video Mark!

  • dddmemaybe

    The reason most triple A games are overloaded has to do with who is employed for those companies. For a stretch example: say there's a whole team designated for a company that only works on crafting systems. That large company would have to fire the crafting team or pay them for doing nothing if there wasn't a crafting system for their new game.

  • Plaatboy

    I saw the title and knew its meaning instantly because it was something learned in Architecture school. For one semester I had a professor ask me every week when showing her the new iteration of my design; "its better, but the plan needs to be more pure." It took awhile to get what she meant. I had learned you find a concept and everything you do flows from it. but I was doing it in one way. You explain here that one gets have a bunch of elements and you then pick the ones that make the concept stronger, instead of making strong elements by overlaying a concept onto them. (design by addition). Both are valid, but it depends I want you're trying to do. A garden or library can be minimal, housing or offices can be complex and a muddy concept for the sake of having an engaging, livable space.

  • Just LorenzoS

    I just discovered this channel, and this is the first video I have watched, being ICO my favorite ps2 game alongside SOTC.
    Thank you Mark for the excellent work, you'd make a great teacher imho.

  • Lyubimov89

    Made me think about extremely virtual base upgrading element of MGSV. It's just a load of tables that do not add much to the core mechanic.

  • MexicanBurrito

    When designing a game, you chose the core of the gameplay first, and then add to it things that strengthens it. Like art style, story etc.

    Sure, a game can have its gameplay revolve around a story (like Until Dawn) and how that story changes but take out the story and its just blocks of information that changes. Games truly are the peak of media and I hope that it becomes easier and easier for people to get into so more concepts gets explored.

  • Timothy McLean

    I had no idea Ico was quite so influential. I never in a million years would have guessed that it inspired the creation of Dark freakin' Souls!

  • mrbenz19

    Now, where can I get my hand for some Ico? I always told myself to go play that, but I still haven't until today.

  • Or4ANGEpm

    ICO and Another World are quite possibly the more ripped off games of all times.

  • edallencompassingly

    Excellent video thank you.
    It would be interesting to see a discussion on why Last Guardian didn't have quite the gigantic success than Ico and SOTC did. Ueda certainly has not changed his approach. Nor can we simply say "long dev time killed it". That's far too simplistic (design by subtraction doesn't always work in critique!). Nevertheless, it is apparent that Last Guardian has not had the success that the prior two have.

  • Joshua Roenfeldt

    Found your channel from Extra Credit. So hooked to your videos and really enjoy games at a deeper level. Its like I took the blue pill, but can see and appreciate the game design.

  • KUTE

    Verry nice channel 👏😻

  • Nik Tri

    Fumito Ueda is gaming's Hayao Miyazaki.

  • FilmGamer

    Boring as hell game.

  • K-leb

    Whoa…when Mark mentioned that Ueda's next game was Shadow of the Colussus, the puzzle pieces fell into place. I thought something about Ico felt familiar, but I couldn't put my figure on why without knowing that it's connected to Shadow of the Colossus by developer.

  • Jason Martin

    So when are you making a Shadow of the Colossus video? It's been two years man

  • Guilherme Franco

    I noticed you have included short clips of Sword & Sworcery in the video. That is my favorite game of all time and the game that got me into game design. Please, could you make a video about it? Your vision on it would be very, very interesting.

  • Michail Kaufman

    Start Pre-sale ICO Ziber ziber.tech Buy the first token

  • A.X. Roads

    This reminds me of the method of writing that Earnest Hemingway developed: the Iceberg Theory.

  • Crimson-fox Twitch

    Another idea: make your new mechanics tie into the core fundamentals of your game. Movement for instance can tie into a lot of things, like combat, storytelling, depth, and options. Arc System Works tends to do this well often. What they did with Guilty Gear Xrd Revelator was give the player a bunch of optional mechanics to give the player options. The only two advanced techniques in that game that are 100% essential to playing at a high level are Roman Cancels and Faultless Defense, both which have existed for as long as the series has.

  • Nice Dude

    Ico is such an engrossing game, my heart jumped when Yuda tripped in the bridge scene!

  • Suggestive Carp

    Wow, way to shoot down Tony Hawk.

  • Bigg Jobag

    Absolutely. Having some kind of "mechanisms quota" is the single greatest scourge of videogame design. It is true for every game that there should be one mechanism at the core and only as many mechanisms supporting that as are necessary for adequate depth.

  • IndigoBarrel

    This video has helped me a lot on the design of my own game, Misfortune. It's a tabletop RPG but the design philosophy is still sound.

    The game started as a small side project, but now it's becoming my first game to release, being a very unassuming black-and-white game of meager 6000 or so words. But to me, the game is very much ABOUT something. And that's what I love about it.

    Thanks for making this video, I love your videos, but this in particular has a soft spot for me. I've watched it a dozen or so times, just to remember how to stay on track with my own designs.

  • Steven Last

    i really like fez (although fish did put in a bunch of impossible puzzles in his game) but i didn't like ico
    fez felt like a game, but ico felt like "how long can we make people run around before they can't stand it anymore?"

  • Freyathrith

    You, sir, *get it*. Yet another genuinely illuminating analysis. Thank you!

  • Pedro Henrique Souto Gueiros

    Great video, but please… Don't show it to Todd Howard

  • Heisenberg

    I tried playing ICO a couple years ago, and I just couldn't get past the combat. I loved the environment, atmosphere, platforming, puzzles, and subtle story telling, but the combat was just so experience ruining awful.

    These black cloud things come out of nowhere, you hit them with a stick three times, they fall down, you wait for them to get up, you hit them with a stick three times, they fall down, you wait for them to get up, you hit them with a stick three times, they fall down, you wait for them to get up, you hit them with a stick three times, they fall down, you wait for them to get up, you hit them with a stick three times, they fall down, you wait for them to get up, you hit them with a stick three times, they fall down, you wait for them to get up, you hit them with a stick three times, they fall down, you wait for them to get up, you hit them with a stick three times, they fall down, you wait for them to get up, you hit them with a stick three times, and then they finally die. Then you go to the next room that spawns more enemies, and repeat the entire process.

    If ICO's combat wasn't so mind numbingly repetitive, or in the game at all, then I would probably love it, but with its terrible combat I just can't get into it.

  • jason dads

    reminds me of "Accretion- design by landfill"

  • Lugmillord

    Okay okay, I get it. I'll get rid of that certain section in my game that doesn't quite fit in. I understood. Focus on the core, get rid of unnecessary distractions.

  • Medal

    But if you stop filling the game with content, you'd be forced to admit your game is not needed. A lot of titles nowadays suffer from the same problem – the first game had a cool idea, but the sequels rehash the same idea with something new on top of it. To not add any new content or concept is essentially to say you're selling the same game over and over again.

  • David Szeto

    I would love to see you do a video about Spec Ops: The Line and the strong messages it sends about:
    1) the way other video games normalize violence without any consequences
    2) how games always make you the hero
    3) what sort of choice a player has, as well as the choice to do nothing

  • MajkaSrajka

    This video is so great that I don't feel the need of speaking about these things anymore. Now I feel the need to point towards this video.

    I've spoken about some of these for years, since I was mid-teen, but could never speak so cleanly or showcase the ideas properly – now I have not only words, but clean-cut game examples.

    Thank you.

  • Michael Lathrop

    stocks in Ico just went through the ceiling

  • The Toxic Avenger

    It was one of the first games where I really cared about a character. It felt like I was supposed to protect her instead of game telling me I had to. And I felt bad when I failed to do so. The best part of it all is that they managed to achieve this without any real dialogue at all.

  • Connor Force

    You're gonna pull her arm out of its socket if you keep yanking her around like that.

  • Tidal Grunt

    are we sjre inspiring halo 4 was a good thing?

  • Michelangelo Bonetti

    what's the name of the first game in the video?


    Anyone notice how the gameplay of Last Guardian is almost the opposite of this game? "Trico" is Ico, and the player is Yoda. The puzzle/platform gameplay is quite similar too!

  • Nani_Sore_

    cool and good

  • Tyler

    I'm surprised how much I like your videos. I'm not into game design at all, but the philosophy, psychology, and inspiration that comes out is intriguing. All the content you provide should be taught before game design has begun. What makes a good game good should be critical knowledge to a developer. Thanks for the hard work you put into making quality videos. subbed.

  • Lattrodon

    this is part of the reason i love Diablo 1 so much

  • CunningCondor

    I've always preferred Ico over SotC.

  • Joris Ferwerda

    Je n'ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n'ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.
    (roughly: I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.)
    – Blaise Pascal (about 400 years ago)

    I really love this reasoning of aiming for impact and depth rather than just a range of broad features

  • Samuel Fishback

    what's the game you got going at the beginning and end of the video?

  • Claire Rostron

    I remember watching a full play through of Ico about a year back. Haven't played it, but I just might in another year or so's time. And even though it's so minimalist and simple, it's one of the only games (or videos, in my case) that really made me feel something deep down.
    I'm typically not one to be moved by games or movies. Sure, they're still enjoyable, but you won't exactly find me crying at a really sad moment or shaken when a character dies. But the whole ambience, atmosphere and the like of Ico makes me feel relaxed and calm in a way that I typically don't. Even when you're just standing about in the game. I'm yet to find anything similar, so I'd say the designers of the game hit it right on the nail for me.

  • Sovietnepal / smiller0109

    This is like that one game with the bird Trico.

  • jmohr00

    I wish they'd subtracted the stupid combat

  • quintopia

    I've never played this game, but I love this video just because I could listen to Jim Guthrie all day long.

  • Ausable Unit Productions

    how dare you suggest that tony hawk would be better off without skitchin

  • Pick Up The Lantern

    love your work! and the use of the word

    R E S O N A T E

  • Simon Keyes

    Personally, I don't think the combat in ICO is too simplistic. But I do believe that many of the combat sections drag on for too long. Most of them have about one wave of enemies too many, give or take.

  • ibrahim ateş


  • Ayako Tanaka

    I love ICO even more

  • Horus Thelemite

    ICO is the only game I still own from the PS2. Nothing comes close to the design, game play or the story. It is a real gem of computer gaming. A shame it has never been released for the PC as I would play it over and over again. Thank you Mr Brown.

  • Chairman

    Another game that does pretty much one mechanic really well is gunpoint. Great video

  • eddy friday


  • Kohdok

    "Video Games are weird." -Mark Brown, 2015

  • Gustavo Aguilar García

    Maybe my favourite videogame ever. And I've played a few of them since 1983!
    It becomes really special without the need of adding lots of special features to it.

  • JOECRAZY3193

    I love this show. I’m re watching all the episodes to find different mechanics or visual interests from games to give my short films something that traditional films don’t. And this video I feel makes me feel interested In the idea of design by subtraction

  • Teddie

    Awesome video. Thank you.

  • Philip Liu

    What's the game on 0:01

  • cyacyai00

    細かい事だけど、日本語字幕、ヨーダではなくてヨルダかな。 Yorda (ヨルダ Yoruda)

  • cyberpunk64bit

    This is a really good look into my own game.
    I have a TON of ideas that I would LOVE to make into it, but would it really benefit? no. I just need to remember to add whats only really essential (especially that its not done yet).

  • quartz48ga3


  • Rohann van Rensburg

    Such a fantastic concept for creativity in general. At first one struggles to come up with good ideas, but I think masters struggle more with stripping away "good" to uncover "best".

  • Moth man

    Holy cow what was the game at the very beginning

  • Surplus King

    Subtraction is important part of game design but minimalism isn't the best answer for all games.

    Considering how we hate minimalistic new Simcity and we love Cities skylines which more complex, but still with subtraction.

  • Elmo

    this game is beautiful. It might be old but the music and level design always left me relaxed minded.

  • Tim Keuben

    Hi Mark, just randomly reaching out via one of your outstanding video’s. Here to say: Thank you! Really enjoying all of these and learning a lot, even as a lifelong gamer these video’s put to words how I feel and experience games these days. Keep it up! Looking forward for more.

  • Priscilla Pliml

    As an architecture student, I love watching these videos. There are so many connections that can be drawn between games and building design. This idea of subtraction down to only elements that support your core themes is of particular importance in architecture as well. Thank you for the video.

  • theshuman100

    They removed features in exchange for fancy stair walking mechanics

  • Les vidéos de Nathan Cassin

    Once you finish the game you can unlock the 2 players mode and control Yorda !

  • Crepitus

    EA and other idiotic devs: oh thats a great philosophy! lets remove content, make unfinished games!

  • Dinerenblanc

    This is the first video I watched from this channel that's over 2 years old and hahahah, love how you make your voice like 2 octaves lower than usual here

  • Kenneth Campbell

    Is this game the reason we have escort missions?


    Ive been begging Plague tale and RE2 REMAKE to name a few to pay attention to animation.

  • ko paxson

    minecraft fits the bill


    Think rather the game being discussed, it is about you, than you feel woke!

  • Mark Freeman


  • Stephen Smith

    The video ends with cool sounding advice but not exactly "good" advice. You can also just keep cramming game features in and still end up with an awesome successful game… (ex. World of Warcraft & Grand Theft Auto [5] Online ). Also you can keep throwing things against the wall to see what sticks… (ex. all HiRez games)


    I subbed. This was beautiful.

  • James Ryou

    They need to remaster Ico, not change anything, just update the graphics and republish it.

  • Zerotraveler

    I remember playing Ico a long while ago. I distinctly remember, after having first run around with Yorda for a little while, I realized that running full speed everywhere while holding her hand kind of jerks her around by the arm awkwardly, and found myself trying to move Ico slower during those portions. I didn't do it on purpose, I just caught myself trying to be nice to a collection of pixels on a screen.

    Of course, during an attack, I had no such compulsion, and it felt much more natural trying to drag Yorda out of danger.

    I suggest trying it, if you're still playing Ico. Do a run just going at Yorda's pace. It's very relaxing.

  • CaliforniaHP

    I love Ico for that reason it's pure goodness

  • TheRealLargeKnome


  • Aidan McCoy

    This game has no issues that stand out more today, absolutely none, nothing offensive. 100%. Never. Except sexi-

  • Alex Luff

    Pausing at 1:08 to go play this game before I finish watching this one, brb.

  • Florbengorben

    I'm loving the addition of the Sword and Sworcery soundtrack. I love that game but I love the soundtrack even more

  • za ki

    now he made me want a remake for a game i have never heard of before.

  • Stefan Ok

    John Ford inspired Akira Kurosawa who inspired Sergio Leone – “video games are weird” but film is too… inspiration is circular 🙏🏼

  • MageBurger

    I watched the developer commentary of Portal and was immensely intrigued by the actual process of designing the game.

    Primarily what they chose to cut out and keep, and I believe this video does that kind of developer mindset justice, and it will be yet another video I download for the big screen.

  • Arian hmn

    This is sort of the video game equivalent of killing your darlings

  • Matt Lambert

    Shadow of the Colossus just felt like an unfinished game to me. It seemed like the developers had the landscape, riding mechanics, and bosses done, but everything else was full of bugs so they decided to cut their losses and pretend like this was the game they intended to make all along. I'm still not convinced that's not what happened and everything they said about it isn't just a pretentious cover. If the game that came out was what the developers were going for, it was meant to be a game that could easily be completed in an hour if not for being padded with cut-scenes, long boring treks across empty landscape, and some battle mechanics that make players wait around on top of pillars for ten minutes at a time so they can get another shot at a boss. I would have been I don't know why people have such a high opinions of Shadow of the Colossus. I think It would have been a really good game if it would have been finished and wasn't just running in an empty landscape to get to the boss fights, but it just feels like a very early beta version of a game. If 'design by subtraction' is indistinguishable from 'design by having to ship an unfinished game to meat a production deadline,' is it really that great of a methodology?

  • Knut Kniffte

    Playing it atm. Great game with frustrating controls. The jumping feels like hell. Still a great game.

  • ThisandThat

    Eco?… smh.


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